Gary Tetz
Gary Tetz

At the end of a long day doing skillful and important things for elderly residents, do you ever pause and mutter to yourself, “He won’t get any better. She won’t live much longer. What an incredible waste of my very valuable time.”

I didn’t think so. That’s why I’m glad you chose a career in long-term care and Dr. Ben Carson didn’t. 

The renowned pediatric neurosurgeon from Johns Hopkins University is known for the steadiness of his gifted hands, but his clumsy verbal scalpel nicked a nerve at the opening general session of the American Health Care Association convention in Phoenix recently. At least it did with me.

In describing the enormously complex and exhausting procedures he’d performed over his career, he compared doing surgery on a child, who might have decades of meaningful life ahead, with that of an old person, who doesn’t. He chose to work with kids, he told us, because, “I like a return on my investment.” Cue awkward audience laugh, followed by quiet feelings of personal outrage. 

To review, Dr. Carson’s profile has been rising of late, and he’s become a reliable fountain of uncensored and controversial remarks.  He’s tied gay marriage to bestiality, and told a conservative gathering recently that Obamacare was “the worst thing to happen to this nation since slavery.” That last remark got loud applause, but Pearl Harbor, the Great Depression, Watergate, Vietnam and 9/11 are now suing him for defamation.

In other words, he’s a well-known loose cannon and cable news provocateur, so his ill-chosen remarks shouldn’t have surprised or offended me. Except that he’s blurted them out before. Like here, for instance. Or here. He didn’t misspeak. It seems he says the same thing, almost word for word, all the time. He apparently truly believes that time and effort spent on seniors don’t yield sufficient reward, though his choice to say so to an audience of people who have dedicated whole lives in their service was still astonishing.

I know, I know. He was probably just making a joke, and prides himself on being politically incorrect. I know this because he said so, just moments before. But here’s the thing: Words do matter, and repeated words on important topics spoken by national figures wielding the megaphone of celebrity do affect a society’s views and values.

We can’t say they don’t, and rant against the liberal tyranny of hypersensitivity, and then hire advertising agencies and marketing directors to hone diabolically precise word-based messages designed to reinforce brands and inspire action. Billions of dollars are spent each year, from sugary sodas to medical supplies, on the proven premise that finely sliced nuances of language do affect profits and perceptions. But suddenly my words, or your words, or Dr. Carson’s words don’t really make a difference?

We can’t have it both ways, especially in a world where the lives and contributions of seniors are devalued and frequently forgotten, and the resources needed to provide their care are constantly at risk. So every word spoken in every setting we can control should be to fight negative perceptions, not to reinforce them.

Sadly, I know I’m preaching to the choir here. You’re not the ones getting the movie deals and book contracts, or being paid thousands to make a speech. You don’t have people hanging on every insensitive, inflammatory word you might utter. You’re just taking care of seniors, creating the worlds in which they live and thrive, honoring their experiences and achievements and valuing their continued existence.

But there’s one little thing you can do. The next time someone tries to tell you the elderly don’t matter and your efforts on their behalf are wasted, politely decline. Tell them you like a return on your listening investment.

Things I Think is written by Gary Tetz, who cobbles these pieces together from his secret lair somewhere near the scenic, wine-soaked hamlet of Walla Walla, WA. Since his debut with at the end of a previous century, he has continued to amuse, inform and sometimes befuddle long-term care readers worldwide.